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Towards U.S.–ASEAN Co-innovation of the Pacific Community

Towards U.S.–ASEAN Co-innovation of the Pacific Community
Source: ASEAN

ASEAN(Association of Southeast Asian Nations)’s long-term susceptibility to the multidimensional Thucydides Trap between Washington and Beijing has turned the region into a theater of (soft power) competition between the two superpowers. Reflecting the many-faceted volatility of the region’s geostrategic landscape, the fundamentals of the U.S.’ strategic approach to ASEAN should gravitate more towards cultural initiatives that comprehensively sustain liberal resiliency in the region. Realizing ASEAN’s potential as a (technologically) competitive hub of cultural pluralism would not only benefit the U.S. in weaving the universal notion of the “Pacific community” with ASEAN, it is also key to defining future liberal narratives of regional governance.

Strategic Importance of ASEAN to the U.S.

As the host of the Malacca Strait, the bottleneck of the South China Sea trade route, and the world’s second-busiest energy transport route, ASEAN has been geostrategically crucial to the political and economic interests of stakeholders worldwide. Such significance continues to render the region economically prosperous. Over the last five decades, ASEAN doubled its global GDP share from 3.2% in 1967 to 6.2% in 2017. With twice the population of the U.S., the ten natural resource-abundant ASEAN member states are projected to become the fourth-largest trading bloc in the world by 2050. For the U.S.–ASEAN relations, these rosy prospects precipitate a favorable economic climate between the two. ASEAN has become the number one investment destination in the region and the fourth-largest trading partner with a trade size of $263 billion, accounting for 5.2% of U.S. total exports. Like the ever-more prosperous economic relations, the U.S.–ASEAN cooperation has also reached its apex in its 40-year diplomatic history. The first ASEAN–U.S. Maritime Exercise kicked off last year as part of ASEAN’s four-year (2016–2020) plan of action. This year, the collective’s concerted support for U.S.-led freedom of navigation exercises was reaffirmed when Cobra Gold—the annual military drill the U.S. has held with its oldest Asian ally, Thailand, since 1982—was extended to 27 countries. Security experts see ASEAN’s increasing ties with the U.S. as the archipelagic power bloc (essentially, Indonesia and the Philippines) hedging efforts against Beijing-dominated expansionist endeavors in the South China Sea. Despite the emerging consensus on deploying a hedging strategy against China and on recognizing the U.S.’ indispensability in assuring regional security and prosperity, ASEAN chronically faces the dilemma of tight-roping between the U.S. and China to defend the value of ASEAN centrality.

U.S. Engagement in ASEAN

ASEAN’s high strategic importance to the U.S. over the last few decades has revamped the U.S.’ understanding of it beyond it being a mere subset of East Asian policy. The U.S. became the first nation to appoint an ambassador to ASEAN in 2011, two years after joining the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in 2009; the U.S.–ASEAN relationship was promoted to the level of strategic partnership in 2015.

The U.S.’ initiatives for earning the hearts of the ASEAN people have so far focused on boosting economic and policy connectivity that leverages Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC)’s three-pillared agenda of trade liberalization, business facilitation, and technological transfer. Notably, the Obama Administration’s 2016 U.S.–ASEAN initiative takes a “whole of America” multi-stakeholder approach to strengthen U.S.–ASEAN connectivity in the fields of business, energy, innovation, and policy. Recent developments in the Trump administration, however, have created abysmal policy inconsistencies that have caused previous engagement efforts to deteriorate. Particularly, the Trump administration’s fiasco of withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in 2017 triggered a political and economic vacuum that left ASEAN with no choice but to join the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). Pundits often view the RCEP as the relatively less stringent and less costly TPP alternative that functions as the software of China’s regional economic influence.

To cope with this woeful new normal, the U.S. now needs new and restructured ASEAN strategies. Fortunately, the future of the Trump administration’s three new ASEAN initiatives in cyber-connectivity networks, supply chain networks, and certification networks give an inkling about where these new and restructured strategies should stand.

First, the U.S.–ASEAN Smart Cities Partnership (UASCP) is an initiative that provides ASEAN with a $10 million investment in innovating smart city and cybersecurity solutions for the 26 member cities in the ASEAN Smart City Network (ASCN). In theory, UASCP should aim to technologically equip ASEAN citizens with tools to help them live sustainable, productive, and possibly liberal lifestyles, as well as with the democratic capability to free themselves from any repressive power constraints, such as the Orwellian “big brother” type of 5G censorship. Second, the Blue Dot Network (BDN), which is seen by many as a U.S. countermove against China’s Belt and Road Initiative, is a multi-stakeholder initiative to establish pan-Pacific certification schemes that voluntarily regulate sustainability standards in the region. Instead of dividing the Pacific region into “us” the liberals and “them” the commies (although anti-China rhetoric is often strategically necessary to consolidate “us” the liberals in saving the cost of performing our democratic rituals), BDN should focus on harnessing its comparative advantage in raising environmental and labor standards in the region. Third, the Economic Prosperity Network (EPN) governs pan-Pacific supply chain mechanisms by linking like-minded economies. In part, the EPN should function as a catalyst to boost ASEAN’s manufacturing advantage against China. UASCN, BDN, and EPN, though at the rudimentary phase of development, should set policy cornerstones for the future direction of the U.S.–ASEAN strategy.

However, discourses on policies integrating these cornerstones to define the liberal future of regional governance—which regulates manufacturing, product, and consumption standards—are missing. This policy rupture leads intellectuals like Amy Searight to stress the importance of architecting the universal notion of the “Pacific community,” which not only legitimatizes the institution but also establishes a fundamentally shared identity between ASEAN, the U.S., and the Pacific Islands.

Raising Standards in the Indo-Pacific: the CaliSEAN style

Unique cultural pluralism in ASEAN distinguishes the community’s identity from that of other Asian groups, particularly from the relatively homogenous East Asian identity. The U.S. needs theoretical grounds to co-innovate and co-transcend the pluralistic ASEAN identity, which seems to have some underlying commonalities with Californian cultural pluralism, into the communal Pacific identity that politically leverages ASEAN’s aspirations for democracy and good governance. In this way, ASEAN can better navigate their central “values-competition,” especially with China, which raises product, manufacturing, and consumption standards in the region and, in return, could invigorate U.S. liberal leadership in the region. The “California Effect”—a term first coined by American political scientist David Vogel to describe regulatory competition-based harmonization of environmental standards—could probably be the best starting point for designing a sustainable, resilient, and liberal Pacific community. For instance, the fallouts of the California Effect extend to the socio-cultural aspect of ASEAN governance (e.g., holographic promotion of the CaliSEAN-style AI pop artist/tourism among young generations and other out-of-the-box ideas).

It is now in the hands of the next generation of American internationalists to conceptualize pluralistic and competent CaliSEAN identity and values. When this centrality of cultural pluralism can indeed reassure America’s progressive leadership in the region, ASEAN and the U.S.’ Indo-Pacific allies will better hedge the governance risk arising from future cross-cultural inequalities.



Mark (Won Min) Seo

Mark (Won Min) Seo is a freelance writer who served as an editor for NYU’s Journal of Political Inquiry. He was also a former intern with the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. He has an MA in Politics from New York University.